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More doling out pop psychology wisdom than fictionalizing the shadowy life of the most ineffectual (arguably) double agent in the history of espionage, Paolo Coelho‘s “The Spy” is a novella length hymnal to the libidinous existence of Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, (popularly known as ‘Mata Hari’), a Dutch exotic dancer, cultural icon and convicted spy. Mata Hari, subsequent to a hearing (which was botched in more ways than one and flawed in its entirety) was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers at the onset of dawn on 15 October 1917. According to eyewitness reports, Mata Hari refused a blindfold, requested not to be bound and even defiantly blew a kiss to the firing squad.
‘The Spy’ is basically a letter written by Mata Hari before her execution to the lawyer, who represented, and ‘failed’ her before the investigation commission. Bemoaning the hubris that ultimately made her pay an irredeemable price, Mata Hari embraces a defiance that is one part incredulous and two parts, laughable. Vindicating her excesses and justifying her slippery character, the protagonist lapses into incoherent rambles and inexplicable aphorisms. Once a Coelho, always a Coelho. The faucet of soda fountain sagacity is turned on to its full strength as Coelho transforms a seductress into a philosophy spouting saint. “When we don’t know where life is taking us, we are never lost. . . The true sin is living so far removed from absolute harmony.”
An abusive principal at boarding school, an even more abusive husband, domestic violence in the exotic settings of Indonesia and a poisoned child later, Margaretha escapes the Southeast Asian country and seeks refuge in exotic France. A France which is in the very throes of a Belle Époque. A monstrous albeit magnificent tower has been erected, and named after its creator, Eiffel. Optimism co-exists with economic prosperity, while, the arts flourish, with numerous masterpieces of literature, music, theatre, and visual art gaining extensive recognition.
In sync with the times, Margaretha morphs into Mata Hara and clads both her inhibitions and clothes with vivacity, verve and even a degree of verisimilitude. From exotic dancing (which includes removing 6 layers of clothing before mimicking an orgasmic climax in front of an idol of Lord Shiva), to extravagant affairs, Mata Hari becomes the very cynosure of Paris. Men fantasize about her while women loath her, even though some aping their male counterparts, warm the bed with her.
Coelho engages in liberal ‘name dropping’ while describing Mata Hari’s sojourn in Paris. If the objective is to infuse some sheen into an otherwise lacklustre, book, then the endeavour unfortunately falls flat. A chance meeting with the legendary Pablo Picasso has the painter ogling at Mata Hari and unabashedly vying for her attention, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, who ultimately leaves him. Mata Hari’s opinion about Picasso: “An ugly, wide-eyed impolite man who fancied himself the greatest of the greats.” Sigh!
The outbreak of the First World War results in an ominous turn of fortunes for Mata Hari. Finding herself in Berlin, after being coaxed out of Paris with the promise of both audience and appreciable change in fortune, Mata Hari is forced to flee the country to the neutral territory of Holland, but not before being recruited as a spy for Germany. The moment she reaches Holland, she informs the French consulate of this move by Germany, and thus begins her eventful life as a double agent, as well as her path to denouement.
As a veritable phalanx of lovers who repeatedly ravaged her body and scarred her soul, begin abhorring her like the plague, Mata Hari the phenomenon, transforms into Mata Hari the Pariah. Even a Russian soldier, for and in whom, she finds true love and caringly tends to him after serious damage to his eyes in a battle at Verdun, swats her away and divests her of her last vestige of shame and dignity by impudently claiming in a hearing that Mata Hara must be stoned and senseless to think that a man twenty years her junior would fall in love with her.
Paolo Coelho demeans the toughness and conviction of Mata Hari by choosing to concentrate on some incredibly mundane and asinine stuff, totally extraneous to the core. For example there is an entire Chapter, that is unnecessarily devoted to describing the contents of Mata Hari’s belongings – a cornucopia of opulence and plenty – waistcoats; bags with engraved mirrors, hats, slippers….
Coelho’s disappointing ode to a supremely misunderstood figure, is an unfortunate exercise in blasé superficiality. Some of Mata Hari’s own rapacious proclamations invests her with the mantle of a vamp than drape her in a robe of vulnerability. “Innocent? Perhaps that is not the right word. I was never innocent, not since I first set foot in this city I love so dearly. I thought I could manipulate those who wanted state secrets. I thought the Germans, French, English, Spanish would never be able to resist me—and yet, in the end, I was the one manipulated. The crimes I did commit, I escaped, the greatest of which was being an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men.”
Paolo Coelho’s bio at the end of the book has him flirting with death, escaping madness, dallied with drugs, withstood torture, experimented with magic and alchemy, and a few more such eclectic activities before concluding that “In searching for his own place in the world, he has discovered answers for the challenges that everyone faces.” The real Mata Hari faced her own set of steep challenges throughout her short span of existence on earth. She might have discovered answers to those challenges, or she might have been deprived of such enlightenment. She may even have chosen to remain oblivious to solutions and answers since at times a question that remains unanswered, like a riddle remaining unsolved lends more mystique and allure than a puzzle satisfactorily resolved.
It is such an allure or a mystique that Paolo Coelho strives to achieve and spectacularly fails in his endeavour. Watch the spell binding Greta Garbo movie instead!